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For many Minnesotans, in-person voting will be a lot different this year

Because of COVID-19, local governments have changed numerous polling locations or — in some smaller, rural precincts — gone to mail balloting.

COVID-19 has sent elections officials searching for venues that allow voters to safely keep their distance and stop them from endangering Minnesotans vulnerable to the virus.
COVID-19 has sent elections officials searching for venues that allow voters to safely keep their distance and stop them from endangering Minnesotans vulnerable to the virus.
MinnPost file photo by Karl Pearson-Cater

Coronavirus had yet to be detected in Minnesota on March 3, Super Tuesday, when Minnesotans went to the polls for the state’s presidential primary.

On Aug. 11, a week from today, some Minnesotans — at least those who aren’t among the record number to have already cast a mail-in ballot (or are planning to do so) — will once again go to the polls, this time to vote in primaries for local, legislative and congressional seats. 

But the experience will be a lot different this time around. Because of COVID-19, masks will be required inside polling locations. Poll workers will be sanitizing everything from voting booths to pens between use. And social distancing will be observed, which could cause lines out the door. 

The changes will be even more significant for some Minnesotans, who will be going to new polling places, or whose polling places have switched to mail balloting.

Moving polling locations 

Before coronavirus, it didn’t particularly matter if polling locations were on the small side, or whether or not they were located in senior living facilities, as many in Minnesota were.

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COVID-19 changed that, sending elections officials searching for venues that allow voters to safely keep their distance and stop them from endangering Minnesotans vulnerable to the virus.

Most cities in Hennepin County have changed at least one polling place, Elections Manager Ginny Gelms said last month, mostly having to do with “moving locations out of senior housing and high rises and locations where the room itself was so small that you can’t socially distance.” 

In southern Minnesota, Blue Earth County has relocated three Mankato polling places as a result of COVID-19, said Michael Stalberger, the county’s director of property and environmental resources. 

Two polling places had been located at Pathstone Living, a senior living facility. Another had been at a church. Now voters from these precincts will cast ballots at the Blue Earth County Historical Society. “It’s one of those instances where you hate to leave a good host, but we kind of had to make some of those calls,” Stalberger said. 

In looking for alternatives, the county sought buildings with large, open spaces and long corridors so voters can be appropriately spaced if they have to wait in line.

In New Prague, St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church had hosted voters in recent election cycles. But this year, due to COVID-19 the church’s parish activity center is needed for expanded classrooms for the parish school, so it’s not available, said Ken Ondich, the city’s planning and community development director. Voters in the city’s second precinct will cast ballots at the New Prague Fitness and Aquatic Center.

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Up in Baudette, in northern Minnesota’s Lake of the Woods County, residents normally go to the City Council chambers to vote. But that space is too small to accommodate social distancing, so voters will go to the VFW bar and restaurant to vote. Baudette officials told the Star Tribune it’s the only place in town that can accommodate social distancing. 

There is a state law that prohibits polling to be held in places that serve “intoxicating liquors or non-intoxicating malt beverages” or adjoin places that serve such things, but the VFW won’t be serving while voting takes place.

All-mail balloting

The differences this year aren’t limited to changes in venue. The pandemic has prompted some precincts to go to mail balloting. Under state law, this has long been an option for townships and cities with fewer than 400 registered voters that are outside the metro area.

In southwestern Minnesota, 10 of Lyon County’s 33 precincts have made the switch to all-mail balloting in the run-up to the primary, said Lyon County auditor and treasurer E.J. Moberg. Nine of the 10 indicated that at least for now, the change was just for this year, while one decided to make the change permanent. As of primary day, 26 of the county’s 33 precincts will be vote-by-mail.

Ballots are mailed to registered voters in all-mail precincts, but voters also have the option to drop off their ballot, vote in person or register on Election Day at a central polling place.

With all these changes, elections officials say it’s a good idea to check your polling place before you head out to vote. You can do that by checking the mail — you should have gotten a notification if your polling place changed — or look up the location here

The primary will function as a dry run for November. For the most part, polling places in November should be the same as they are for the August primary, said Secretary of State spokesperson Risikat Adesaogun.

And if you’re sitting on a mail-in ballot? Bring it to your local elections center or send it soon. It has to be postmarked by Election Day and received by two days later — Aug. 13 — to be counted. Early in-person voting is also still an option through Monday, Aug. 10. 

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that voters in all-mail balloting precincts can still vote at central polling locations.